Although the state's temporary moratorium on new permits for oil wells that use high-pressure extraction methods doesn't directly impact the Arroyo Grande Oil Field, it sets the stage for a future that could.
There are essentially three parts to an announcement made by Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration through the Department of Conservation on Nov. 19. A moratorium prohibits new wells that use high-pressure cyclic steaming to break apart geological formations to extract oil, and there will be an independent review (by experts from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) of pending oil permit applications for hydraulic fracturing and other well stimulation practices. But there's also a rule-making component, which state Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) told New Times is meant to focus on public health and safety of areas close to oil production.
"While this doesn't block use of steam injection or high-powered extraction, it does put a moratorium on new permits for new wells that could evolve to a prohibition on new wells," Monning told New Times. "That rule-making process would be open to everybody in SLO County. Anyone can participate in the open public meetings. And one thing that I've discerned in terms of health and safety protections, it could result in broader buffer zones in populated areas. It could look at water protections."
Water protection has been at the center of opposition to Sentinel Peak's operations on the Arroyo Grande Oil Field in Price Canyon and was a key argument in favor of Measure G, a failed 2018 voter initiative that tried to ban hydraulic fracturing and new oil wells in SLO County. Sabrina Lockhart from the California Independent Petroleum Association, which Sentinel Peaks is a member of, said the governor's actions on hydraulic fracturing and high-pressure steam injection don't pertain to operations in Price Canyon. The Arroyo Grande Oil Field is a mix of traditional and steam-injected oil wells.
The governor's press release pegs the recent surface leaks at the Cymric Oil Field in Kern County as an impetus for the action. Assemblymember Monique Limón's (D-Santa Barbara) Assemly Bill 1057, was also one of the reasons for the action. Limón's legislation, which Newsom signed in October, renamed the agency overseeing the oil industry to CalGEM (Geologic Energy Management Division), redirected its mission to focus more on public health and safety, and increased the bond costs companies pay to ensure safety compliance when they abandon their oil and gas operations. The bill doesn't include language about a moratorium.
A statement Limón's office sent to New Times said the governor's announcement aligned with the mission of her bill.
"The moratorium the governor has placed on new fracking and steam-injection permits is an important step for California," she said in the statement. "His announcement today [on Nov. 19] is aligned to the work that I and other members of the Legislature have been doing to protect Californians from dangerous and costly drilling practices."
Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo) called the governor's temporary moratorium "executive overreach."
"Policymaking of this scope and magnitude should come by way of the legislative process, not executive fiat," Cunningham said in a statement emailed to New Times. "Policymakers should have the opportunity to weigh the costs and benefits of such a large decision through the democratic process."
Monning contends that it's within both the governor's purview and the Department of Conservation's authority to take actions like this recent one.
"They can do a lot through their existing authority and that's what they're doing. I think the distinction is that Gov. Newsom is taking some bold steps in comparison to the steps that Gov. [Jerry] Brown took," Monning said. "Whatever the final determinations are, it's going to be informed by science and third party experts. I think it's consistent with him taking bold action in other areas. I think it's a thoughtful approach as well." Δ